When the Vegas Golden Knights were going through the expansion draft process last summer, most of their plans focused on the long-term outlook for the team.
Sure, they were arguably in a better position than previous expansion squads to ice a competitive lineup under the 2017 protection rules, but without any other assets beyond their own seven draft picks each year, GM George McPhee did what he could to expand that pool. He made deals to stay away from specific exposed players to pick up more picks, which ended up with the Golden Knights holding three first-rounders in 2017, and 28 picks overall in 2018, ’19 and ’20.
And then the start of the season came and Vegas won eight of its first nine games. James Neal had six goals in the first four games and though he’s cooled from that tear, Jonathan Marchessault and the unlikely William Karlsson have stepped up as point-per-game contributors. The goaltending has been the best story of all, as Oscar Dansk, Maxime Lagace and Malcolm Subban have all played a part in the Cinderella tale while Marc-Andre Fleury works his way back from a concussion — and there’s no timeline on his return yet.
On Dec. 1, Vegas is still in the running for top spot in the Pacific Division, just two points shy of the LA Kings, who have played two more games.
But because of their situation, it was assumed that most of their better players would be traded by the deadline for whatever long-term assets McPhee could gather. Neal, Marchessault and David Perron especially are UFAs who would bring value to any number of playoff-bound teams in need of a boost on offence.
If this underdog is for real, though, and there is a path to the playoffs, should that change any of the plans that were originally in place for a franchise most expected to end up at the bottom of the league?
“We do have a master plan, but if this team is in the hunt way down the road, way down the road, in March, then we’ll stay in the hunt. I wouldn’t derail it. It’s not fair to this team or this community,” McPhee said on Sportsnet 590 the FAN’s Prime Time Sports this week.
The Pacific Division used to be top heavy with power teams in California, but two of them (San Jose and Los Angeles) have taken a step back as they’ve aged in recent seasons, while the Anaheim Ducks are the most banged up team in the league and are missing basically their top two lines. The Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers were on track to take over, but both of them (to varying degrees) have found the rise isn’t so automatic and easy.
Now, the division is without a true favourite and has a goal differential of minus-25. That power vacuum has left an opening for the Golden Knights and it appears as though there is a scenario where they could become unplanned buyers at the deadline.
“We’ll do the best we can,” McPhee said. “We did the very best we could in the draft to acquire surplus picks and we did and we’re well-stocked for three more years and we’re going to use them to try to build a championship team, whether that’s through the draft or putting a few together to get another player. I hope to be nimble enough to be able to do things based on how the team is performing.”
It wouldn’t take much to convince owner Bill Foley to buy into that audible if it happens. McPhee says he has a great relationship with the billionaire and it even seems like, if the Golden Knights are in the hunt, this group of players could be together longer than expected. Re-signing Marchessault or Neal, rather than dealing them both for futures, may even be in the cards if the situation is just right.
“I’ve done my best to spend time with Bill and explain how I see the world and try to understand how he sees the world,” McPhee continued. “Needless to say, we both want to win. We sit together during games, which I haven’t done that before. Garth Snow did it with Charles Wang on the island and it worked very, very well for their relationship and it allows me to explain to Bill things that are going on in the game and tell him everything I think I know about the game. It’s his team and he’s entitled to know whatever he wants to know.
“He wants to win, he’s a very competitive guy and he will spend to win. And so we’re going to do the best we can to do so and try to make smart decisions and see where it takes us.”
The December schedule looks to be favourable to the Golden Knights, too, with eight of their 13 games at home where they are 9-2-0. They don’t go on a road trip for longer than two games this month — the toughest part of the next 31 days may be the two back-to-back sets of away games. There will be other tough tests, such as facing Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Toronto, but at least those are all on home ice.
By Jan. 1, we’ll have a very good idea of how real this Vegas team is. And if it’s going to hang around, it looks like McPhee’s deadline outlook will be radically different than expected.